Okay, what with needing some redemption from all that trashy TV I watched while I was home, I recently finished listening to “Vanity Fair,” by William Thackery.
Maybe it’s just the authors I happen to pick, but it certainly does seem that the 19th century had quite the fascination with the “ruined” woman. They’re all over Dickens’ books, and Thomas Hardy’s and George Eliot’s, and there’s Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” Chopin’s “The Awakening,” and so on and so forth. There’s also plenty of novels on this theme in the early part of the 20th century (Edith Wharton had a serious love of this theme).
Typically, what gets these women into trouble in the first place is their desire to better themselves, socially and monetarily, by snagging a wealthy man. And my, my, my, do they get punished for wanting to leave the realm in which they were born. I’ve gotten to the point that when I read about some woman determined to leap a couple of social rungs, I figure they’ll be destitute or dead by the end of the novel.
Chopin whacked her heroine in “The Awakening,” by having her commit suicide, and the reviewers got all up in arms and said the book was immoral because the fallen woman was allowed to kill herself. Just being dead wasn’t enough punishment. Tough crowd, them folks.
So when “Vanity Fair” started with a pair of young women, one poor and wily, the other one wealthy and kind, I figured I knew where we were headed. It didn’t actually resolve itself as completely as I foresaw, surprising me to a degree. Still, there’s the fallen woman business and the whole British thing of how you can’t escape your breeding.
In some respects, it reminded me of Balzac’s “Cousin Bette,” also from the 19th century. Balzac’s climbers were also smart and wily, while his social elite were insipid and helpless. He pretty much heaps punishment of everyone’s heads, so he doesn’t play favorites.
All that aside, reading “Vanity Fair” got me to wondering about social ruin for women. Back in the day, it didn’t take much. Being caught alone in a room with a man, other than a family member, would pretty much take care of it. Social ruin meant not being accepted by polite society, and that would have left you at the mercy of your family, who may or may not have thrown you into the streets. Even if they kept you, they’d likely shuttle you off to a little cottage in the country with some maiden, parsimonious, scripture-spouting aunt, where you’d live the rest of your outcast days in misery.
But what about today? What does it take to be socially ruined in our world today? Is there even such a thing anymore? And I’m not talking about people like fundamentalists, evangelicals, or their ilk. Clearly, social ruin is still alive and well with them (unwed mothers, homosexuals, inter-racial marriage, etc.).
I’m talking about rational human beings, like you and I, living in a modern world. And by social ruin, I mean being disowned by your family, left with no support, and shunned by everyone you ever knew, basically treated like a pariah. Serious business.
Obviously, sexual scandal won’t ruin you today. If it did, most of the actresses in Hollywood would be in the unemployment line and we wouldn’t be plagued with the likes of Paris Hilton.
Also, we don’t have any problem with social climbing, if that’s what you’re into. In fact, I think a lot of people are seriously into the social climbing.
Something that led to social ruin back in the day was the loss of all your money. I don’t know about where you all are from, but where I come from, bankruptcy doesn’t mean much. Oh, people will gossip about it, but they won’t cut you in public and refuse to see you again. It certainly does not make for social ruin.
So, if sex, the desire to rise above your class of birth, and bankruptcy doesn’t ruin you socially in today’s world, what the hell can?
One thing I could think of was committing a crime. It can’t be a white-collar crime, since no one seems to get too worked up over that sort of thing (why that is, I have no idea). I would think, though, that committing a big crime like robbery, rape, child abuse, murder, etc., would socially ruin you (though perhaps not among those on a certain level of the social pyramid, but then, that’s been true throughout time).
Another one is drug addiction. While this is a forgivable offense for celebrities, it often is not for everyone else.
Beyond big crimes and drug addiction, I can’t think of anything else. Hedon thought of polygamy (been watching “Big Love”) and mental illness (among some people). It’s certainly not a bad thing that the “fallen woman” has ceased to be a focus of our society. I am surprised to discover, however, how difficult it must be these days to get yourself socially ostracized. I must be missing something here. It’s true that I don’t get out much. Any ideas?
In the meanwhile, I’ve moved on in my audiobooks. I’m having some light fun at the moment with “The Eyre Affair,” by Jasper Fforde. It’s not classic literature, but it is a cute book, kind of like a grab bag of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, historical, paranormal, suspense, detective fiction. I know, sounds like something of a mess, and yet so far, it’s pretty good. I’m at the part where I think the bad guy is getting ready to kidnap Jane Eyre out of the pages of the novel of the same name, and hold her hostage for a mighty ransom. What fun.
And social ruin is nowhere to be seen on the horizon for the plucky heroine.